Sightseeing in Edinburgh (Nathan)

Trip Start Sep 03, 2010
Trip End Oct 27, 2010

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Where I stayed
Central Youth Hostel

Flag of United Kingdom  , Scotland,
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The flight to Edinburgh was pretty uneventful- we took a train to Newark, New Jersey, then a long flight to Paris and a short one to Scotland. There was a lot of waiting, both in the plane and on the ground, and we had to fill out some cards and go through immigration, though they were friendly and helpful. It was a pretty exhausting experience, so when we finally got to Edinburgh from the airport by bus, we just spent our time finding lodgings (which took surprisingly long) and wandering a few shop, marveling at the weird flavors of potato chips. We're actually starting a collection of the bags of weird potato chip flavors we find and eat, which I'll post much later, but for now I'll say: roast ox.

The hostel we're staying at is pretty nice as hostels go, from what I've read. It has a 24 hour front desk, no curfew, and clean modern rooms. Glennica and I are staying in separate rooms (they're segregated by gender), each with about three other people in dormitory-style bunks. It's not so bad, though- it's a hell of a lot cheaper than a hotel, and I can pretty much ignore all my roommates as long as I wear earplugs while sleeping. The only trouble is meeting Glennica in the morning. I can't set an alarm or else I'll be unable to use my earplugs, so we've usually been just saying "I'll try to wake up at 9" and somehow it's been working.

After spending our first day getting settled, we awoke refreshed and wandered out to see Edinburgh's sights. Grocery stores are kind of a sight in themselves... we've been wandering into several just to see what kinds of weird candy and chips they have. Food options are different but good, with a lot of sausage rolls and savory pies and even pasties. We've been drinking a lot of cider as well, in order to use the free internet at pubs (like I'm doing right now), and they have some good stuff out here- my favorite so far is Kopparberg, a Swedish cider with "elderflower and lime" among its selection of flavors. Edinburgh is definitely a tourist town... it seems like I've seen about as many foreigners here as Scottish people.

There's also a very deep history everywhere you look, something you don't find as much in America. Hardly had we started out than I saw a plaque marking the birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and one of my favorite authors. Even the place where Glennica got her morning coffee was a converted Scottish police box- at first I thought they were all red, but we saw some others around town that hadn't been converted into shops, and they were blue, just like the English ones, though not the same shape.

The most obvious landmark in Edinburgh if you arrive by bus is definitely the Sir Walter Scott monument, a rather sinister-looking spire of black-stained stone that just rises up out of the grass next to the street, dominating everything around it. Everywhere we went in Edinburgh, we could see its distinctive shape in the skyline. Walter Scott is a very beloved Scottish author, and, as we learned when we went to the castle, he was also apparently responsible for finding the country's crown jewels when they had been forgotten for years.

We started out by visiting the park below Edinburgh Castle, which used to be a loch before it was drained centuries ago. It's a beautiful, quiet place with a memorial to the Royal Scottish Regiment, showing them fighting throughout different eras in history in a series of engraved stone slabs. After that, we headed up the hill to the castle itself and took the tour. I can't really describe it in much detail, but highlights were Mons Meg, a gigantic cannon, a cute little graveyard for the soldiers' dogs, the beautiful war memorial (no photography allowed, so you can't see it, but it was nice), some former barracks that had a fancy ceiling built like an inverted ship's hull and a collection of weapons displayed along the walls, the castle's prisons, Saint Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh, and the Scottish crown jewels (again, no photography allowed).

After that we took a break for breakfast and headed to the Camera Obscura, which I think used to be a part of the castle, or at least the infrastructure around it, and was later added onto and improved. It was very, very old in any case... the stone stairs were visibly sagging from the erosion of millions of people climbing them, and although it was 5 storeys high, there was no elevator because the building was unable to accommodate one. This is probably my favorite thing on the trip so far... it was all about optical illusions and holograms, lenses and light. The camera obscura itself was kind of neat, projecting a real-time image of the surrounding area down onto a concave disc in a darkened room, which could be rotated to view other directions using a rod. Kids were invited to use pieces of paper to "scoop up" the images of people wandering the streets below, and this one little English boy was being absolutely adorable about it. No photography was allowed inside the camera obscura itself, but I got lots of pictures of everything else... for starters, the tower provided a nice view of Edinburgh and the Royal Mile (the long street between the castle and the royal residences at the other end of town). Inside was the best, though... there were tons of optical illusion pictures and holograms, plasma balls and lightning tubes, an infinite corridor, a hall of mirrors, perspective illusions, and our personal favorite, the vortex tunnel- one of those rotating starry tubes with a catwalk suspended in the middle where as soon as you walk in, you feel as it the catwalk is rotating rather than the tube around it, making it seem as though you're suspended in a whirling void and forcing you to lean hard to one side even if you try to resist. I'd seen one of these before as part of a haunted house mall thing on Halloween, but this one was even better and we went through probably a dozen times, stumbling back and forth and giggling and trying without success to walk through in a straight line. The gift shop was kind of disappointing in some ways.. they had a great selection of kick-ass holograms that I couldn't afford to ship home, but a very poor selection of optical illusion posters like the ones in the building itself, most of which I would have loved to buy. Maybe I can find some online. They did, for some reason, have Ghostbusters buttons though, so I bought a couple of those. I still don't have a jacket or anything to put buttons and pins on, but I'm starting my collection anyway, damn it!

Afterwards, we started down the Royal Mile, but the street in the middle was blocked off... there was some kind of parade or something going on, and I'm still not entirely sure what it was all about. There were bagpipers and people on horses, someone far away giving a speech that everyone was cheering over, and finally a row of important-looking people in top hats carrying something between two buildings. Eventually the street cleared a bit and we could cross it, picking up a bunch of brochures for ghost tours that evening. There was also a Scottish bum wearing a kilt and a hat covered in buttons who seemed to be heckling everyone in the parade, and then drunkenly impersonating a policeman, waving everyone across the street when it opened up to crossing again.

Most of the rest of the day was spent browsing the shops along the Royal Mile and making our way to the end, where we climbed part of Arthur's Seat, but couldn't seem to find a way to get all the way to the top. We were both pretty tired by this point and headed back most of the way along the Royal Mile, stopping for dinner in the World's End Pub (so named because it was the former site of the city's outer wall- for the citizens, their world ended there). There was a reasonably-priced appetizer-sized haggis on the menu, so we decided to try it, and it was pretty good... though admittedly it was a fancy touristed-up version with just the filling and no sheep's stomach. It reminded me of corned beef hash a little. After that we kept going up the mile and met at the City of the Dead sign for their ghost tour.

It started off pretty good... our guide, a cute Scottish woman with a pleasant voice, led us around the area, stopping occasionally to tell us a bit about Scottish history and kind of building the mood. I especially liked her story about the origin of tartans in Scotland, and how they're not as old and traditional as everyone thinks. Eventually the stories got darker, talking about the horrible living conditions in Edinburgh back when it was a walled-in, overpopulated castle town with no plumbing. After that she led us into the "City of the Damned", some dank damp vaults below town, built in the arches of a former bridge. Here, she said, the poorest of society had lived, paying what little they had to crowd 50 or more families into dirty dark wet underground vaults- it beat the alternative of being homeless, which was against the law and punishable by torture or death. Disease and fighting were rampant, as was crime- murderers, rapists and the Hellfire Club used the underground areas to carry out their work unseen, knowing that the law mostly preferred to ignore the vaults rather than risk getting sick venturing into them. It was a very eerie story, but for me, it was hard to imagine... sure, it was dank and dark and spooky down there, but all these events had happened so long ago, there hardly seemed to be a trace left to show it.

She led us from vault to vault, and her stories stopped being historical and started getting a little cheesy, all about people getting trapped in the vaults and visitors leaving with mysterious hand-shaped bruises on their necks- including herself, or so she claimed. She said she refused to go into the next vault, and that it had mysterious cold areas that would make you pass out if you stood in them too long. I wandered around in the back looking for them (not that I believed her, but I try to keep an open mind, and was trying to suspend my disbelief a bit to better enjoy the tour), and she was telling another story about how a girl had been mysteriously dragged to another corner of the room away from her mother, but neither had felt the other let go of their hand.

So far, I'd found the tour mildly interesting but barely even spooky, not terrifying like it was supposed to be according to the brochure's numerous reviews, but all the grisly historical stuff and the over-the-top ghost stories were starting to get me in the mood a little... maybe in the next room, I thought, I'd start to get into it a little more. Then when I was glancing around and she was saying this was the famous poltergeist's favorite haunt and we should leave him be, someone ran into the room yelling "BOOORRRRRARRRRGHHHH" and startled the hell out of everyone (except me, which is odd... I guess my mind was on other things). I actually got rather violently knocked over by the girls in front of me when they jumped back, but my backpack broke my fall and I was unhurt... though Glennica, who saw it happen, was pretty upset with the tour guide. I never even saw the guy who ran in to startle everyone, since I was looking the other way when he came in, so I don't know if he had a costume or what, but either way, it was a pretty disappointing end to the ghost tour, which just had a couple more short historical stops before we went back to the street. It had been a little cheesy and silly, but in an enjoyable way, and I was just starting to let myself feel creeped out... but the cheap scare at the end ruined any credibility the stories had and felt like a lazy, lame way to end it. Glennica says all ghost tours have a cheap boo scare in them, which makes me even more disappointed, but it was still worth the money for the earlier parts, so I can't complain too much.

After that we walked back to the hostel and went to bed, getting up early the next morning for our trip to the Highlands!

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Mia on

Sorry I didn't comment on any of the last few, but now I'm caught up. Wow, I really missed out when I went travelling with my family... there's no opportunity to do anything neat. And yes, your stuff is definitely neat compared to what we did. I wish I could have seen that memorial and some of the other stuff, but wow, I've never been in a building with that kind of ancient feel to it! Lucky.
Looking forward to the next bunch!

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